Tommy Garcia was still in his teens when he came aboard the Confederate Air Force wing in Houston, which, a few years earlier, had acquired a B-17G named Texas Raiders. With its olive drab paint job and top turret, Texas Raiders had the outward appearance of a wartime B-17, but Garcia soon discovered that on the inside, it was “just a tube.” The bomb bays, machine gun mounts, and other military equipment had been removed years earlier. It wasn’t that the CAF people weren’t interested in restoring it: their approach was just more laid back. Garcia remembers how those conversations went: “So they might have had a turret—‘Okay, fine, we’ve got one, we’ll put it on one of these days.’ But they didn’t have any real push to get to that level. And our generation came along and we got into that.”
Garcia began hunting down technical documentation and engineering drawings. The CAF’ers started finding missing parts or recreating the ones they couldn’t find, and began slowly restoring Texas Raiders. The Confederate Air Force Arizona wing, which had acquired Sentimental Journey in 1978, and the Experimental Aircraft Association, to which Aluminum Overcast was donated in 1983, were following the same tortuous path.
In his search for parts and documentation, Garcia crossed paths with Jim Peters, one of Sentimental Journey’s maintenance officers. “We began to communicate, sharing things with each other,” recalls Garcia. Eventually, they formed an alliance.
When William D. “Doc” Hospers, an orthopedic surgeon and pilot from a Fort Worth suburb, found an all-but-abandoned B-17 on an old airstrip in Dothan, Alabama, in 1979 that Dothan Aviation had used for 13 years to spray insecticide on fire ants, the alliance gained some muscle. Even though the deal for the aircraft Hospers promptly named Chuckie, after his wife, included several trailers full of spare parts, he found that there were still parts he needed. But when he approached the various bomber groups to see about swaps, all he got was the cold shoulder.
Hospers kept reaching out and eventually got Jim Peters, Tommy Garcia, and some Aluminum Overcast people to meet him. “That first meeting we had was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area at an old hotel, and my husband got up and started talking,” recalls Chuckie Hospers. “He had a chart, and the first thing he wrote on it was ‘SURVIVAL,’ and I’ll never forget that. He said, ‘This is all about survival for all of us, and keeping communication open.’ After that, we thought it’d be a good idea to expand it to the other B-17s. That’s how it started.”
According to Garcia, beefing up the alliance created a new synergy. “By having restored the Texas Raiders back in ’84, ’85, my knowledge base on how to do the whole airplane was there. Jim Peters, being a mechanic by trade and a flight engineer during the war, knew the plane intimately from that end of it. And then Hospers, now being an owner of the aircraft and a pilot, completed the circle for us. The three major talents are right there together, and that becomes the nucleus of the co-op.”
In the mid-1980s, companies that had been providing fire-bombing services to the U.S. Forest Service began selling off their B-17s for newer aircraft. “All of a sudden, here are all these people with all these big-ass airplanes,” says Garcia. “They want to restore them. They want to have a good time with them and make money. Where do they go? They haven’t got a clue. Then they start to realize there is the triangle, us, sitting there with all this information. So they start coming to our meetings and we lure them into the group.”
Each year one of the owners hosts the B-17 Co-op meeting, usually at a hotel close to the airport where that bomber is berthed. The owners sit around a large table, while behind them, in chairs lining the walls, their assistants, operations chiefs, and mechanics eye one another silently. By now most of the support crew members know one another, but they are usually careful not to advertise it, since a certain level of distrust still exists among the groups.
Strength in Numbers
At a recent meeting in Fort Worth, hosted by Chuckie Hospers, the Texas Raiders team has decided to lend a damaged spare set of horizontal stabilizers to Ray Moore in South Carolina, who is building a B-17 practically from scratch. In return, Moore will fix the damaged set, then copy it and make a set for himself and one for another project. Helping Moore is in keeping with the new spirit of cooperation. Now, someone observes, if only Moore can figure out where to get a set of wings.